Ismail Kadaré's "Spiritus"

Notes from the House of Death

The Albanian writer Ismail Kadaré has been seen as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature for years. The seventy-one-year-old finds most of his subject-matter within the turbulent history of his people. His book, Spiritus, is no exception. Ariana Mirza read the novel

The Albanian writer Ismail Kadaré has been seen as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature for years. The seventy-one-year-old finds most of his subject-matter within the turbulent history of his people. His book, Spiritus, is no exception. Ariana Mirza read the novel

Ismail Kadaré (photo: dpa)
in 2005, Ismail Kadaré won the inaugural Booker International Prize. He has divided his time between France and Albania since 1990

​​Ismail Kadaré first achieved world-wide fame in 1963 with the historical novel General of the Dead Army. Since then he has often been considered as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. However he remains a controversial figure. The main accusation against him is the date his exile began, seen as suspiciously late; he was first forced to leave totalitarian Albania in 1990, till then barely affected by state repression. He now lives alternately in Tirana and Paris.

The literary quality of his work is however uncontested. Ismail Kadaré is both a sober chronicler and a powerful, epic storyteller, bewitching his readers with dense symbolism and imaginative twists.

In Spiritus Kadaré focuses on a particularly insidious phase of dictator Enver Hodscha's tyrannical rule: the creation of a perfect surveillance state. But it is not the banality of evil which interests Kadaré; instead he develops an imaginative scenario which places the documented reality produced through excessive bugging in the context of the country's history, rich in mythology.

The search for "the core of the legend"

In the novel's sub-plot a group of foreign researchers trawl through Albania's recent past looking for the stuff of legends. It is almost as if Kadaré is making an ironic commentary on his own literary approach here; the search for the "core of the legend" is a recurring element running throughout his work.

​​After a long hunt the researchers finally find what they are looking for in the provincial backwater "B". The jigsaw-pieces they fit together consist of dossiers and eye-witness reports about a mysterious theatre performance, bodies dug up and moved, and interrogation notes

They uncover the fantastic story of Arian Vogli, a faithful servant of the system who ends up caught in a trap he himself laid. Vogli is the head of the secret service and wants to give the dictator a special present: the blueprint and details of a newly imported surveillance technique from China. The "princesses", also known as the "ears of death" are bugging devices which will guarantee the blind leader absolute power.

To make things simple the bug is sown into theatregoers' coats in the cloakroom; after all anyone interested in culture must be subversive. The engineer Shpend Guraziu is also caught within this blanket vizier. While accompanying a French delegation Guraziu attempts to make contact with people abroad. His undesirable activities are halted by a bulldozer.

Hunting for spirits in an atheist country

Unfortunately the fact that the "ears of death" also transmit messages from the afterlife soon sets a series of event in motion not planned for under real socialist. Vogli is now forced to hunt down spirits in a bureaucratic, atheistic system to save his own skin.

With Spiritus Ismail Kadaré has created a colourfully peopled narrative cosmos, the language, composition and dramaturgy crafted with equal virtuosity.

Alongside illuminating insights into the "body" of the people, he also provides interior access to the "head" and "arms": the dictator and his henchmen. Historical facts and literary references, to Lermontov and Chekhov amongst others, are woven into the narrative thread along with linguistic diversions.

The reader takes a journey through a country's past and present which seems so far to have resisted the encroaches of the enlightenment. Thus Spiritus does not focus on the generally accepted facts about south-east European dictatorships' psychology and structure. Instead the novelist sheds light on particular characteristics of Albania which have always distinguished it from its Balkan neighbours.

A pragmatic approach to myths

Kadaré the storyteller presents one of these Albanian characteristics as the punchline: while the travelling academics are still attempting to make sense of the monstrous facts and conclusions of their research, the Albanians have already spun their own peculiar tale out of the events. This horror story is so strange and mysterious it is bound to boost tourism: a glimmer of hope for the bitterly poor country.

With Spiritus Kadaré once more turns his attention as a writer to the Albanian nation. Despite all his internationalism, a fundamental separatism runs through Kadaré's entire work, which is perhaps one of the reasons why he has been denied the Nobel Prize so far. Its award would be a political statement; opponents of Kosovo's independence under Albanian leadership – for which Kadaré has championed – would probably kick up a storm.

It is interesting to note that in his political remarks Kadaré identifies Albanian culture as "western" and underplays the influence of oriental and Ottoman culture. Islam therefore seldom appears within Kadaré's literary subject matter, although around seventy percent of the Albanian population are Muslims, making Albania the European country with the largest Muslim population.

However Kadaré ignores this subject in Spiritus too. The only fleeting allusion is the word "Hodscha", the dictator's surname, which otherwise refers to a type of Islamic priest.

Ariana Mirza

© 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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